San Diego’s top Coastal Commission official believes her agency will need to sign off on a controversial attempt to bar short-term rentals in single-family neighborhoods, a prospect that could doom that proposal altogether.

City Council President Sherri Lightner, who is pushing the changes and has scheduled a Tuesday vote on the proposed Airbnb crackdown, said last week she didn’t believe the agency, which regulates land use along the coast, would need weigh in.

Deborah Lee, the commission’s San Diego district manager, thinks otherwise – and that could be a major roadblock to implementing the proposal in the very coastal neighborhoods where complaints have peaked.

The agency’s been critical of vacation rental bans and regulations because it believes those rentals offer lower-income visitors affordable options to visit the coast. The agency doubled down on that position in a memo last week.

Over the last two years, the Coastal Commission has aggressively asserted the principle that tourists should have affordable options to stay in places on the coast. The agency even rejected permits for hotels at Harbor Island because they didn’t offer affordable lodging for middle and working class tourists.

And last December, Lee expressed concerns about a previous proposed ordinance that would have required minimum 21-day stays in single-family neighborhoods. That measure ultimately died before it made it to the City Council.

Lee’s agency appears poised to get involved again if Lightner’s proposal moves forward Tuesday. The Coastal Commission would also likely need to sign off on any other changes that could overhaul the city’s approach to short-term rentals, such as the less restrictive proposal City Councilman Chris Cate has said he’ll float.

Based on what she’d heard about Lightner’s measure last week, Lee said she expected the city would have to pursue a formal amendment to its local coastal program – a document similar to a community plan – before any changes could go into effect in the city’s coastal areas.

“Ultimately, any revision to their local coastal program needs to be brought to the commission for their review and endorsement,” Lee said.

An attorney hired by vacation rental platforms made a similar case in a Friday letter sent to City Councilmembers and argued the Coastal Commission would be unlikely to approve Lightner’s proposal given its position on the previous city ordinance.

“It is highly implausible that Coastal Commission would certify the Lightner ordinance,” attorney Robin Madaffer wrote. “As a result, the communities with individuals who have been most vocal about their potential concerns with whole-home rental and home-sharing activities would not be afforded any relief.”

Lightner’s more optimistic.

She said Friday she doesn’t think her measure would trigger Coastal Commission review because it’s simply an attempt to explain what she believes city code already says: Vacation rentals aren’t allowed in single-family neighborhoods.

“We are not changing any of the land uses. We are clarifying,” Lightner said. “It is a minor edit.”

But she hedged when pressed.

“It depends upon what happens on Tuesday,” Lightner said.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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